Saturday, January 20, 2018

It Came From The Cineplex: Downsizing

Downsizing was written by Jim Taylor and Alexander Payne. It was directed by Alexander Payne.

Taylor and Payne are writing partners and have quite an eclectic resume between them, including ElectionJurassic Park IIIAbout SchmidtSideways and I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry. Payne also wrote The Descendants on his own.

Payne directed The Passion Of MartinCitizen RuthElectionAbout SchmidtSidewaysThe Descendants and Nebraska.

Downsizing is a gigantic (see what I did there) sloppy mess of a film, that feels like the director took several completely unrelated movies and tried his best to merge and compress them into one cohesive whole. Sadly, he failed spectacularly.

The film tells the story of Paul Safranek, a dull and ordinary man who learns to feel for "the little guy" after becoming one of them literally. At least I think that's what the movie's about. In addition to being a commentary on suburbia and class structure, it's also equal parts romantic comedy, social satire, environmental cautionary tale and an end of the world drama. Unfortunately none of these disparate plotlines ever gets the attention they deserve, which makes the film feel scattered and unfocused.

It's too bad Payne couldn't have combined all these elements into a cohesive whole, as there are a lot of interesting and compelling ideas in the movie. If he'd managed to stick the landing, Downsizing could have been one of the best sci-fi films of all time.

The film also has a problem with its main character Paul Safranek, who's played by Matt Damon. He plays Paul as a dull and boring everyman, who's still trying to figure out his place in the world. Unfortunately Damon's a little too dull and boring in the role, as he's outshined by virtually every other actor in the film.

In fact the moment Hong Chay's Ngoc Lan appears onscreen, she completely hijacks the film. She steals every single scene she's in, practically shoving Damon out of his own movie.

The trailers for Downsizing are very misleading, as they promise a wacky comedy like Honey I Shrunk The Kids, but for adults. Heck, the trailer even features a scene of the characters enjoying a giant (to them) bottle of vodka that's not in the final film!

In reality, the movie is not a comedy at all. In fact it's all over the place in terms of story and tone. I'm sure this bait & switch probably pissed off a lot of audiences, and understandably so. But who could blame Paramount for releasing such a trailer? How else would they possibly market a film like this? I saw the thing and even I'm not sure how to describe it or what it was really about.

Like I said, Downsizing is a big clumsy trainwreck of a movie, but oddly enough I can't quite find it in myself to hate it. I'm still thinking about the movie a week or so after I saw it, which is very unusual these days. Most current films start fading from my mind on the way out of the theater. If I'm being honest, I'd much rather watch an interesting flawed film that falls on its face as opposed to yet another remake with a recycled plot.

Apparently I'm not the only one who was confused by Downsizing, as audiences haven't exactly flocked to the film. So far it's a major flop, grossing a paltry $33 million (worldwide!) against its $68 million budget. And this wasn't some indie movie released in a few select screens it opened in 2,668 theaters! Ouch!

Unfortunately, this is Matt Damon's third box office disappointment in a row. 2016's The Great Wall grossed $45 million Stateside against its $150 million budget. Yikes! And 2017's Suburbicon racked up a miniscule $5 million against its $25 million budget! Damon needs a hit soon!


The Plot:
Downsizing feels like three separate movies jammed together, so stick with me here.

We start with the first film, which is sort of an environmental scifi story. In Norway, Dr. Jorgen Asbjornsen discovers a serum that shrinks living tissue. Five years later, his colleague Dr. Andreas Jacobsen tells the world he and his colleague have the solution to Earth's overpopulation problem.

He then brings out a box containing Dr. Asbjornsen, who's now just five inches high. Asbjornsen was the first ever human to be Downsized, and he says the permanent process is the perfect way to minimize man's effect on the planet. He then brings out a group of thirty six other Downsized people, who've formed an experimental treehugger colony somewhere in Norway. Among these people is Little Ronni, the first child of two Downsized parents.

We then meet Paul Safranek (played by barely awake Matt Damon), an occupational therapist who works in a factory in Omaha. He lives at home, where he takes care of his ailing mother. He sees the news reports on Downsizing and is fascinated.

Cut to ten years later. Paul's mother is long dead, and he's now married to Audrey (played briefly by Kristen Wiig). The two of them are living in Paul's childhood home, which they're rapidly outgrowing. Audrey desperately wants a house of her own, but Paul says they just can't afford it on their salaries.

Sometime later they go to Paul's high school reunion. As usually happens at such events, Paul's depressed by the fact that his former classmates are all much more successful than him. He sees an old friend named Dave (played by Jason Sudeikis) who's been Downsized. Dave can't shut up about it, saying it's the best thing he's ever done. He goes on and on about his home in Leisureland, a special community built just for Downsized people.

Paul and Audrey attend a seminar at Leisureland, touting all its benefits. Due to the small size of its inhabitants, the cost of living is ridiculously low inside the community. In fact their paltry savings of $52,000 would translate into $12.5 MILLION in Leisureland (!).

When their mortgage application is denied, the Safraneks decide the time's right for them to Downsize. During their going away party, a man in a bar starts badmouthing Downsized people, saying they hurt the economy and make things tougher for normal sized folk. Gosh, if I didn't know better I'd think this scene was an extremely subtle and hard to spot metaphor for illegal immigrants!

Paul and Audrey fly to Leisureland, where the Downsizing process will take place. Once there, they fill out extensive questionnaires and legal forms, letting them know the process is irreversible and could result in death.

Paul's taken into the men's wing, where his entire body is shaved and any dental fillings are removed (since the Downsizing serum only works on organic tissue). He and several other men are placed on beds in a special chamber and injected with the serum. A few minutes later a squad of nurses enter the room and scoop up the now tiny Paul and the others with spatulas, placing them in miniature hospital beds.

Paul wakes up some time later, unsure if anything's happened or not. A nurse assures him he's been Downsized. He then gets a phone call from Audrey, who tells him she's back at the airport. Halfway through the head-shaving procedure she decided she couldn't leave her friends and family behind, and decided not to go through with it. She apologizes to Paul and hangs up, never to be seen for the rest of the film. So much for their marriage, I guess!

The second film then begins, which is a bizarre romantic comedy/social satire. Paul moves into his new Leisureland mansion by himself. He gets a menial job in a call center for Land's End, and falls into a deep depression. Oddly enough his new Downsized life isn't any different than his previous one
— in fact it's worse.

While watching TV one night, he sees a news report on seventeen Vietnamese activists who were punished by being Downsized against their will. They escaped Vietnam and tried to sneak into America inside a TV box, but only one of them survived
 a woman named Ngoc Lan Tran. The report points out that due to her ordeal, her left leg was amputated below the knee. Don't worry, this seemingly random occurrence will become very important later on.

A year later, Paul finalizes his divorce from Audrey, and starts seeing his neighbor Kristen (played by Kerri Kenney, of Reno: 911 fame). One night Paul invites Kristen to his house for dinner. While making awkward small talk, Kristen mentions the big news story
 a giant methane leak in the Arctic. Paul's not heard anything about it, as he admits he doesn't follow the news much. Don't worry, this awkwardly wedged-in bit of foreshadowing will also become very important later on.

Just then their dinner is interrupted by noise from Paul's upstairs neighbor Dusan Mirkovic (played by Christoph Waltz). He yells upstairs at Dusan, asking him to keep it down. Dusan comes down and invites Paul and Kristen to the shindig. Paul politely declines.

The date doesn't go well, as Kristen's just not that into him. Despondent, Paul goes upstairs and joins Dusan's party. While there he sees Little Ronni, who's now a teenaged celebrity. A young woman offers Paul some kind of drug, which he foolishly takes. He trips out for the rest of the party and eventually passes out.

Paul wakes up the next morning on Dusan's floor. For some reason, Paul awkwardly asks him what he does for a living, and he explains he's a black marketeer
 he buys normal sized goods for cheap, then divvies them into smaller amounts and sells them at a premium to the Downsized. Paul also meets Dusan's friend Joris Konrad (played by Udo Kier), who's some sort of boat captain.

Just then Dusan's Vietnamese cleaning crew arrives. He sees one of the women limping, and realizes she must be Ngoc Lan Tran (played by Hong Chau), the famous Vietnamese activist. Told you that incident would become important later!

He follows Ngoc Lan into the bathroom, where she's going through Dusan's medicine cabinet, looking for expired pills. Paul introduces himself and tells her he used to be an occupational therapist. He says he can tell by looking that her prosthetic leg needs adjusting, and offers to help.

Ngoc Lan insists he come home with her to treat a sick woman. Paul tries to explain he's not a doctor, but can't get through to Ngoc Lan, whose grasp of English is tenuous at best.

He tags along to Ngoc Lan's home, which is just outside the protective wall of Leisureland. She lives in what appears to be an abandoned construction trailer, which has been transformed into slum housing for thousands of poor and disadvantaged Downsized people. Paul's shocked to see this seamy side of his new world.

Ngoc Lan takes leftover food she from her cleaning clients and distributes it to the people in her project. She then takes Paul to her apartment, where she's caring for a Mexican woman named Gladys. She says Gladys is dying, and tells Paul to "fix" her. The only thing he can do is give her Percocet for her pain and turn her over so she doesn't get bedsores.

Paul then tries to fix Ngoc Lan's prosthetic leg, but accidentally breaks it. She angryily berates him for being a "stupid man," and informs him he'll now have to do her work. As she's such a force of nature, Paul has no choice but to comply.

The next day, Paul carries Ngoc Lan to her various client's houses, and cleans them while she sits and supervises (what about his Land's End job?). He's especially humiliated when he has to clean Dusan's house. Paul manages to get a temporary peg leg (!) for Ngoc Lan, but is told it'll take months to get her a new and permanent one.

For the next few weeks Paul continues to help Ngoc Lan clean and distribute food to the poor, as he feels obligated to her. Dusan sees that Paul's trapped, and offers him a way out. He says he and Joris are taking a shipment of black market goods to the original Downsized colony in Norway, and invites him to come along. Paul accepts, eager to get out of Leisureland and away from Ngoc Lan.

The three men sit down to tell Ngoc Lan that Paul's leaving for Dr. Asbjornsen's colony in Norway. She perks up when she hears Asbjornsen's name, saying she'll be happy to join them. When they try to tell her she's not coming with, she relates a tearful story of how Dr. Asbjornsen wrote letters to her after her ordeal, saying he felt terrible that his Downsizing process had been used on her as punishment. She says his kind words to her helped her recover, and she wants to meet him in person to thank him. The three men are touched by her story, and resign themselves to the fact that she's coming along.

The third movie then starts up, which is a grim end of the world tale. Paul and the others sail up a Norwegian river in Joris' boat, towing a barge full of normal-sized vodka bottles. They stop to pick up Dr. Asbjornsen and his wife, and continue up the river.

Onboard the boat, Asbjornsen is delighted to see Ngoc Lan. Paul's awestruck by the man who invented Downsizing, but Asbjornsen says even that can't save the world now, and wanders off in a funk. Mrs. Asbjornsen apologizes, saying her husband's been distant and moody ever since he heard the news. When Paul asks what the hell she's talking about, she says it's the end of the world. Apparently the big methane leak is a bigger deal than first reported, and will wipe out humanity in a matter of months (told you this would become important later too!). It's the end of the line for the human race.

Paul's stunned by the news and turns to Ngoc Lan for comfort. They embrace and eventually have sex. The boat arrives at the colony, as the inhabitants welcome their founder Dr. Asbjornsen will open arms. After a big banquet, Paul learns that Asbjornsen actually planned for this. He and the others have constructed a self-contained, underground habitat inside a mountain. The Downsized colonists can live inside the habitat until the methane crisis is over, preserving the human race, which will take roughly five thousand years.

Paul's excited to know the human race will be preserved (even if it's a Downsized version), and wants to join the colony in the shelter. He asks Ngoc Lan to join him, but is heartbroken when she refuses. She says she can't abandon the people back home who depend on her. He tries to explain that her dependents are all going to die, but she's adamant. 

Paul's even more dumbfounded when Dusan and Joris announce they're going back to Leisureland as well. Dusan says scientists have been predicting the end of the world for centuries, and mankind's still around. He says he's gonna take his chances on the surface.

The colonists watch the sun set for the last time, and begin heading into the vault. Paul says goodbye to Dusan, Joris and Ngoc Lan. She stoically watches as he enters the thick vault door.

Inside the vault, Paul walks through a seemingly endless corridor with the other colonists. He asks how far it is to the habitat, and a colonist says eleven miles (relatively speaking, I guess). As he walks along, he begins having second thoughts. He stops and turns around, just in time to see the heavy vault door slowly closing.

Outside, Ngoc Lan stands staring at the door, refusing to let Dusan and Joris leave until it's completely closed. Suddenly they hear a voice, and Paul squeezes through the door a second before it closes forever, or at least for five thousand years. He embraces Ngoc Lan and tells her he loves her. A firecracker explodes above the vault door, burying it under a tiny bit of dirt, to remind the audience these people are supposed to be five inches tall.

Cut to Leisureland, where Paul helps Ngoc Lan deliver food and supplies to the people of the slums, as the future is left uncertain.


• The most frustrating thing about Downsizing is the way it tosses out concepts and ideas and then immediately ignores them, as if the script has an acute case of ADD.

For example, during Paul and Audrey's going away party, they're confronted by a drunk who's got a grudge against the Downsized. He claims they don't consume enough goods, which is destroying the economy for normal sized people.

That's an interesting concept, and something that would likely happen in the real world if Downsizing was a thing,. Unfortunately the idea's instantly dropped a second after it's mentioned, never to be brought up again.

Heck, even the big world-ending methane leak is pretty much forgotten after it's brought up. Dusan says it's all just scientific fear-mongering, and he, Joris, Paul and Ngoc Lan go back to Leisureland as if nothing's wrong! What the hell? Is the world ending or isn't it?

• You don't have to be a film scholar to recognize that the Downsizing process is a metaphor for "going green." The characters all proudly crow that once they've been Downsized, their environmental footprint is now incredibly tiny (get it?). That's exactly what the treehugger crowd is always going on about how little an impact their lifestyles have on the planet.

Subtlety, thy name is Downsizing!

• Once Paul moves into Leisureland, there's little or nothing in the film to indicate his shrunken state. He doesn't ride in a remote controlled toy car, he doesn't sit on empty thread spools and his yard isn't filled with gigantic blades of grass.

Instead his housing, appliances, food and even his car are all meticulously crafted miniature versions of the real thing. They're perfectly in scale with his new size, and look exactly like their normal counterparts.

I suppose you could explain this away by saying that all the tiny products in his house were made by Downsized workers. But his clothing should be a dead giveaway that he's only five inches tall, since it would be difficult to scale down fabrics. His clothes should look rough and coarse, like they're made out of giant fibers which they would be. Remember, Downsizing doesn't involve a shrink ray it's a process involving a serum given to living beings.

The only time we're reminded that we're actually watching tiny people is when Paul buys a gigantic (to him) rose and puts it on his table.

In fact if you didn't know this was a story about a community of tiny people, you'd think it was just an ordinary movie.This makes me wonder why the filmmakers bothered with the whole shrinking concept in the first place, if they were going to immediately abandon it. I get that they wanted to separate Paul from the real world so they could comment on society, but... why not just have him move to a gated community somewhere? Why make him "invisibly" small?

• If you wanted to get reeeeeally technical, once Paul's Downsized everything should look and feel different to him. He'd probably have a hard time with liquids, as his tiny esophagus might have a hard time gulping down full sized water molecules. 

Eating would be problematic as well, as he'd likely have trouble with the textures of unminiaturized foods. You could chop up a regular steak until it was small enough for him to eat, but you couldn't do anything about its texture, if that makes any sense. Would Paul's tiny teeth be able to chew through a hunk of non-shrunken steak?

And what about nutrition? A tiny, Leisureland-scale steak might only contain one or two calories. How much food energy does Paul's miniaturized body need on a daily basis? Does he still need the standard 2,500 calories, or can he get by on just ten or so?

How does the Downsizing serum work? Does it somehow shrink the subject's mass, so they weigh a pound or two? Or does it just compact a person's body, so they still weigh two hundred pounds at five inches tall? If it's the latter, then that would cause problems with how they walk and move, and how they're affected by gravity.

Unfortunately none of these elements are ever dealt with in the film, as if the director couldn't wait to abandon the Downsizing concept once he'd shown it in use.

• The film devotes a good amount of time to the actual Downsizing process (before it seemingly forgets the characters are all five inches tall). Instead of using a sci-fi shrink ray, subjects are injected with a blue serum that causes their bodies to shrink.

The process is shown in excruciating detail, as any of Paul's teeth that contain fillings are removed before he's shrunk. Once he's been Downsized, they're replaced with tiny dental implants. His entire body is also shaved before the procedure begins.

OK, I get why his fillings need to be removed because they'd be unaffected by the serum. They'd remain normal size as the rest of him shrank, which would cause his head to explode. 

But why'd he have to be shaved? Hair's an organic substance, so why wouldn't it shrink along with the rest of him? It doesn't make any sense. If the serum doesn't work on hair, then why don't all the Downsized people have millions of rope-like strands growing out of their scalps?

• The movie seems very confident in the fact that Paul and Audrey's limited savings would translate into $12.5 million inside Leisureland.

OK, I understand that a downsized person's money would go farther, since they're not using as much stuff. But I have a feeling that situation wouldn't last forever. I think after a while the Downsized economy would even out and things would eventually end up costing what they should.

• After Paul's been Downsized, he comments that he's working as a customer service rep for Land's End, since everyone in the community has to contribute somehow.

Wait a minute... why would you have to work in a place called Leisureland? Isn't it like a retirement community?

• There's some interesting worldbuilding in the film, particularly when Paul follows Ngoc Lan home and sees she lives in a Downsized slum just outside the walls of Leisureland. That's something I wasn't expecting, but it makes perfect sense. There's no such thing as a Utopian society. No matter how perfect a community appears to be, you're always gonna need someone to sweep up the sh*t!

• Paul Giamatti and Reese Witherspoon were originally considered for the roles of Paul and Audrey. Honestly it doesn't really matter who played Audrey, as her character is shoved out of the film as quickly as possible. I think Giamatti might have made a more interesting Paul though. Matt Damon's performance was so bland and uninspired that I'm surprised it stuck to the film!

• Jason Sudeikis must have one hell of an agent. He gets fourth billing on the poster, despite the fact that he's in the movie for less than five minutes! Same goes for Kristen Wiig. She gets 
fifth billing, even though she completely disappears from the film before the end of the third act! 

• Speaking of Kristen Wiig, this film certainly doesn't do her any favors. Apart from giving her nothing even remotely funny to do, it makes her look like a real bitch. Halfway through the Downsizing procedure she decides she can't go through with it, and leaves her husband without so much as a second thought! Audrey doesn't even have the guts to walk out on him in person, dumping him over the phone instead! What kind of person would do something like that?

• As I said earlier, the film almost grinds to a halt until Hong Chau appears. Her Ngoc Lan character is an absolute delight, and the movie finally comes to life the second she enters the story. In fact once she's introduced, the movie pretty much shifts its focus away from Paul and becomes all about her. Downsizing is all the better for Ngoc Lan's presence, and the movie could have used a LOT more of her!

FYI, the "Ngoc" in Ngoc Lan's name is pronounced sort of like "Now" or "Neow" (depending on the speaker).

Unfortunately, because we live in a out-of-control, politically correct hellscape, not everyone's as big a fan of Ngoc Lan as I am. Variety said Hong Chau's performance "entered problematic territory for many, as some have noted that its broad strokes veer into the realm of stereotype." And over at Screencrush, they called Ngoc Lan an "icky, racist caricature."

Jesus wept. This is why we can't have nice things.

Guess what, SJWs! Some people have accents! It happens when they learn English as a second language. I have at least ten Asian friends and acquaintances who all speak with accents of varying thicknesses. Should they be considered "icky, racist caricatures" as well?

It's interesting to me that some people are upset about Ngoc Lan here, and no one else. Dusan and his pal Joris both have thick European accents, and no one has a problem with either of them. Dr. Asbjornsen barely speaks any English at all, and when he does it's with an almost impenetrable Norwegian accent. Again, nobody's saying boo about him. 

So why are they singling out Ngoc Lan? She's a well-rounded, strong willed character who has real depth. She's been through horrible trials and tribulations, yet she has an iron will and is determined to help those around her who're less fortunate than she is. She's funny at times, but her ethnicity and accent are never played for laughs. Seems to me if you've got a problem with her character, you might want to stop and ask yourself why?

Actress Hong Chau, who plays Ngoc Lan, was born to Vietnamese parents who lived in a refugee camp in Thailand, after fleeing their country in the late 1970s. Chau was born in Thailand in 1979. Some time later she and her parents immigrated to New Orleans, where she grew up.

Chau adamantly defends the accent she uses in Downsizing, as it comes from her family and the various people she grew up with. Speaking about Ngoc Lan, Chau said, “The character isn’t just the accent, it’s also everything that she is saying. I don’t think we’ve ever seen a story with a character with a disability who is resilient, who is so capable, and who has a sense of purpose in life and isn’t really questioning or pitying themselves. She is a person that demands things, but also needs help. She is the most vulnerable person, but she’s also the least afraid.”

Downsizing is a a mess of a film that feels like three of four wildly disparate movies that were crudely mashed together. Unfortunately none of these elements are ever given their proper due, making the film feel disjointed and unfocused. It's also a frustrating movie, as it tosses out tons of interesting ideas and concepts and then instantly abandons them. Main character Paul Safranek is completely upstaged by Vietnamese activist Ngoc Lan, who steals the movie away from him the moment she appears onscreen. Despite these many flaws, it's still worth a look. I'd much rather watch an interesting failure than a formulaic picture churned out by a studio just to make a buck. It probably deserves a C, but I'm bumping it up to a B- based on Hong Chau's performance alone.

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